It is a question that's not clearly spelled out in either federal or state law, and one at the heart of debate about the future of a multi-billion dollar industry.

What is... and isn't... Indian land?

It's not a complicated question for tribes seeking to build casinos on land recently granted to them by federal officials, but that is not part of their traditional reservation.

"Tribal gaming will be on tribal land, and this is tribal land," says Glenda Nelson as she gazes out over the 40 acres her tribe sees as the future home of a casino and resort just outside the Yuba County town of Olivehurst.

Nelson, chair of the Enterprise Rancheria of theEstom Yumeka Maidu, has been working to build that casino for some 13 years in a process known to many as off-reservation gaming -- that is, a casino built on lands newly acquired by a tribe.

Off Reservation Projects

Those projects are rare.

Since Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) in 1988 -- the official beginning of the modern tribal casino industry -- there have been only seven of these projects approved by federal officials. Some of those tribes still do not have casinos, as IGRA requires the governor of a state to concur with the land acquisition.

California, home to more federally recognized tribes and more Indian casinos than anywhere, has long been a hotbed of proposed off reservation casinos. Those proposals, while similar to outside observers, have hinged on different but narrow provisions in federal law that allow some tribes to have their legal status -- and, perhaps, their future casino prospects -- restored.

But most of those proposals have fizzled out, as either local communities have balked or casino investors have walked away.

The Enterprise casino project, though, is different. So, too, are plans for a casino and hotel complex just off Highway 99 in Madera County, northwest of Fresno.

That deal, for a 2,000 slot machine casino to be owned and operated by the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians, was approved by the Legislature in late June -- sparking a fierce debate among legislators about whether the state needs guidelines for future proposals.

"We don't have a coherent policy," says Sen. Kevin De Leon, D-Los Angeles.

De Leon has formed a legislative working group to draft such a policy. In a July 29 letter to Gov. Jerry Brown, the Democratic senator called the North Fork casino legislative vote "extremely difficult" and urged Brown to temporarily delay sending any more off reservation compacts to the Legislature.

A delay is, not surprisingly, troubling to the Enterprise tribe.

"You know," says Nelson, "I've been told it's really not what's right or wrong. It's politics."

The off reservation projects, which are part of what's known as IGRA's seldom used 'two part determination' have drawn criticism from some established gaming tribes. Those tribes have argued off reservation casinos threaten to undermine the gaming business by saturating the market.

They also argue the designation of new property eligible for gaming runs counter to the rules that tribes have played by for almost two decades.

What Did Voters Expect?

One of California's most vocal gaming critics agrees.

"The citizens of this state deserve to vote on if they want tribal gaming to come off the reservation," says Cheryl Schmit, director of a group called Stand Up for California.

Schmit believes the two ballot initiatives approved by voters in 1998 and 2000 -- which paved the way for tribal gaming in California -- were sold to voters as limiting casino development to Indian reservations.

Last month, Schmit filed a proposed statewide ballot referendum to overturn the North Fork casino project. To date, her political campaign committee has reported raising a little more than $515,000 for the effort, with much of the cash coming from one Fresno area tribe opposed to North Fork's plans.

Schmit and some legislators wonder whether the Obama administration and the Brown administration are showing more willingness to approve off reservation projects than their predecessors.

But the numbers don't yet bear that out. Federal records show of the 22 pending casino applications by tribes across the United States, 10 are designated as off reservation projects. Only two of those are in California.

Yuba Project Waits Its Turn

In Yuba County, the Enterprise casino project has been a hotly debated topic for years. While the tribe does have an agreement with the county for a cut of the revenues, it did lose a 2005 countywide advisory vote on the casino by a 52%-48% margin.

"I'll tell you," says Enterprise chairwoman Nelson, "this is not about getting rich. "This is about providing jobs and opportunity."

But for now, her tribe's journey seems to be on hold at the state Capitol -- as legislators grapple with what they argue is the larger issue at hand.

"Once we do that, then let's entertain Enterprise," says Sen. De Leon. "But we can't have a piecemeal, go-at-it-as-we please approach."

John Myers | News10 Political Editor

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